As school districts in Massachusetts submit their fall proposals to the state, many parents are coming up with their own contingency plans.

Ryan Merten’s daughter, Lena, is going into fourth grade. In normal times, she would be delighted to return to Jackson Street Elementary School in Northampton.

Merten said the whole family loves being in the public school system, because “school is one of the few fair, egalitarian, caring aspects of society.”

Of course, these aren’t normal times.

The state directed schools across Massachusetts to prepare for three potential scenarios: all learning online, all in person or a hybrid of the two.

Merten said Lena would only enroll in the public school if the the district chooses online-only.

He worries that any in-person instruction will be so restrictive that he can’t imagine his daughter — or any student — getting much out of it.

In one proposal, “the kids would not have P.E. or art or music or recess. And their food would be brought to them in each individual room,” he said. “At that point, basically, they're just, like, sitting in a desk, going crazy for five hours a day.”

Moreover, Merten thinks it’s likely that even if students and teachers start in the building, they'll be sent home partway through the fall.

“And I would rather have a plan now than be scrambling in the middle of October,” he said.

That plan is a home schooling pod, a scenario gaining popularity across the country in which families join together in small groups to teach their kids. That could mean hiring a teacher or sharing teaching duties among parents.

Merten works at a café, “and if there is an option where I can keep mostly working full time there, that would definitely be my dream,” he said.

But the pod model has many critics, including some public school leaders.

Amy Proietti, who chairs the Greenfield school committee, worries that home schooling pods may create more divisions in the community — by income and by race.

“Having the ability to home-school, even in a pod where you're sharing responsibilities, takes a huge amount of resources, time, energy, motivation, advocacy,” Proietti said. “And it just stands in such stark contrast to me of what we are actually out fighting for right now.”

Proietti, who is pushing for an online-only option, said she knows families are in a bind. But she would prefer families double down in support of public education and focus on ways to bring less advantaged kids into the fold.

“We're kind of bare bones already,” she said. “And to lose people to the home schooling pod, I think it just really affects morale of, like, ‘We're in this all together.’”

Merten said he understands these concerns, but he thinks it’s unfair to single out communal home schooling. He said the privilege of home schooling is a symptom of systemic inequality, not a cause.

“It will be as [unequal] as life always is,” he said. “You know, the rich will have microscopes and, big screen computers for everyone. But I think it misses something to say that it is basically evil to form pods.”

Some educators have started to think about another option that combines public education with communal pods.

“Can we work with our public school to create pods for everybody? And have the teachers we're already paying staff these pods?” said Steve Barnett, co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

If it’s every family for itself, Barnett said he worries about inequality among home schooling pods. For instance, high-income professional parents may have more academic skills to teach than parents with less education.

“You can get some equalization if the public schools are helping to organize and get resources to everybody on this model,” he said.

Barnett acknowledged this option would mean experimenting with a new way of teaching and administration, and it would likely require state legislation to protect school districts from litigation in the event that a child got COVID-19 at a home schooling pod.

For now, publicly-funded education pods are not among the options in western Massachusetts, so Ryan Merten and his partner are still exploring a private home schooling pod. They’d prefer to work with families they know, but have also put out the word on a community Facebook page.

Merten said many people seem interested in principle, “but also a lot of people were like, ‘No, we're going to go to school. We want to get back to normal.’ Which I think is like a really sweet and optimistic thing.”

In whatever way next year plays out, Merten said his family hopes the 2021-22 school year will be close to normal. If so, they have every intention of returning to the building.

This story was originally published on New England Public Media